In Ulan Bator, winter stoves fuel a smog responsible for one in 10 deaths

There have been a few stories about severe pollution in countries experiencing rapid growth in industrialisation, but this one is different.  This is the result of traditional culture clashing with modern urbanisation with devastating effectger stove


Ulan Bator

From afar the smoke-grey smog-smudge quick-sand
shrouds the streets of Ulan Bator.
Hand-over-hand, walkers pull the miasmic clouds apart.

Curtained light filters through the charcoal haze
and dusks the chill-bite days to night
when bone-deep winter strikes.

The ancient stoves are lit in felt-tent gers,
where the ice-steel fist of winter hits,
and belch the shit of anything that burns.

To survive, absorb the black stoves’ warming glow,
drink the succour of its broth to keep alive,
eat the gob-fat stew that’s on the go, day and night.

Some live to die, coughing, grasping for air,
gagging, hawking the excrement the stoves spit out
from the clustered, turbaned gers.

From afar the blue-sky mountains mock.
Their purity derides the venomed human scar
that is the winter streets of Ulan Bator.


19th October 2013 – headline from the Guardian

Notes:  In Ulan Bator, winter stoves fuel a smog responsible for one in 10 deaths.”  They call Mongolia the “land of blue sky”; its spectacular desert, forest and grasslands are blessed by sun for two-thirds of the year. But climb to a snow-dusted hilltop overlooking Ulan Bator and you see a thick grey band hanging over the city.  Ulan Bator is the world’s chilliest capital, with temperatures dipping as low as -40C in January and in the coming weeks, as temperatures plummet, the smog will spread across the streets and into homes, shutting out the light.  Ulan Bator is the world’s second-most polluted city, superseded only by Ahvaz in Iran, according to World Health Organisation research.  The biggest issue is not the smokestacks on the horizon – Mongolia’s manufacturing sector remains minute – nor the vehicles jamming the capital’s streets. Rather, it is the collision of urbanisation and traditional culture: 60-70% of winter pollution comes from the old-fashioned stoves heating the circular felt tents or gers that sprawl across the slopes around the city.  More than half of the city’s 1.2 million inhabitants live in the impoverished ger districts, burning coal, wood and sometimes rubbish to cook and keep warm.  Ulan Bator’s pollutant levels of PM2.5 – tiny particulate matter, which can penetrate deep into lungs – are six or seven times higher than the WHO’s most lenient air-quality guidelines for developing countries.  The result, say researchers, is that one in every 10 deaths is caused by air pollution – on their most conservative estimate.



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